WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange claims he has a video of an American "massacre" in Afghanistan and is threatening to release thousands of pages of documents that would be ruinous to national security.
The U.S. government needs to brace itself for an outcry in Afghanistan and around the world. WikiLeaks, a website founded by an Australian ex-hacker named Julian Assange and devoted to releasing secret information regardless of consequence, is expected to release videotape of a U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan last year that will be framed as a deliberate or reckless massacre of civilians. Expect protests, condemnations, and outrage — expressions of anti-Americanism that Assange and his cohorts are trying to provoke.
WikiLeaks claims it is receiving 10,000 documents from its sources each day. Notably, the biggest leaks paint the U.S. as an imperialist war-monger without regard for civilian casualties. Assange does this in the name of “radical democracy” where the free flow of information, even of a sensitive nature, educates the public. He has spoken at an anti-capitalist event called the World Social Forum in Kenya and he lives a life of secrecy, hopping from location to location, assisted by Iceland’s decision to become a safe haven for sources for leaks, passing legislation partially drafted by Assange.
Assange is expecting to soon release video of what he calls “the Garani massacre,” a U.S. aistrike in Garani, Afghanistan, which he claims “killed over 100 people, mostly children.” The airstrike caused uproar and undermined support for the U.S. and the government. Before the video is released, edited and with commentary meant to paint the U.S. in the worst possible light, the media need to revisit the facts surrounding the incident.
The battle began when the Taliban attacked Afghan law enforcement. One police officer was captured, a cop car was set ablaze, and the police found themselves overwhelmed. The Taliban hid in fields for cover, knowing full well that civilians were now placed in a combat zone. The Afghan army intervened, only to find themselves also in need of assistance. The U.S. was called in, and the military dispatched a B-1 bomber and two F-18 jets to strike three targets from which the Taliban was firing.
Afghan officials estimated that the bombings killed 140 civilians while the country’s top human rights group said the number was 97. Another Afghan study put the number at 86. The U.S. military says that 20 to 30 civilians and 60 to 65 militants were killed. The number of civilian casualties caused by the U.S. military is often exaggerated in war zones. In Pakistan, for example, a U.S. review found that fewer than 30 civilians have been killed in the CIA’s drone strikes, a sharp difference from the Pakistani media reports of over 600.
Regardless of the discrepancy in numbers, civilian deaths are always a tragedy. The U.S. military investigated the incident and did find that mistakes were made in carrying out the attacks. Mainly, the B-1 bomber lost positive identification of its target for a time because of the route it had to take. However, the military did not conclude that these errors were the cause of the civilian casualties. “[T]he guys on the ground who are involved in this incident took great pains to limit civilian casualties, to target those who had attacked them,” the Pentagon’s press secretary said.
The U.S. military believes that at least some of the civilian casualties were caused by the Taliban’s grenades and the death toll includes militants. It is also suspected that some of the names of those killed are fraudulent. The Afghan government paid $2,000 to the relatives of those killed and $1,000 for each person injured, which is described by NPR as “a small fortune” for Afghans. It is more than most of them earn in years. It should be expected that people will try to take advantage of these handouts by providing false names.
Don’t expect any of these factors to be included in the WikiLeaks video. The website received global attention recently when it released a video called “Collateral Murder” showing a U.S. helicopter allegedly killing Iraqi civilians without regard. The clear bias in the video caused Stephen Colbert, the host of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, to break character in order to confront Julian Assange over his anti-American propaganda.
The strike occurred in a stronghold of the Mahdi Army, the Iranian-backed militia that attacked U.S. and Iraqi forces and engaged in sectarian violence. The streets were empty, indicating a battle had occurred, and the Apache intervened after gunfire was reported. Some of the so-called civilians were carrying weapons, and although a camera was mistaken for an RPG, such a weapon was found at the scene. The van fired on in the video originally dropped personnel off to the scene of the firefight and was picking up bodies and weapons. A video putting the scenes in context can be seen here.
The Pentagon is reportedly looking to question Assange, resulting in his cancellation of a speaking engagement in Las Vegas recently. Bradley Manning, a U.S. Army intelligence analyst with top secret clearance stationed near Baghdad, has been detained after he privately boasted of sending 260,000 classified diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks that would expose “almost-criminal back dealings” and give Secretary of State Clinton a heart attack. Assange denies receiving the material, but an American diplomat says that Manning had access to documents written by State Department officials in the Middle East regarding the activity of Arab governments. The cables also had information related to U.S. intelligence and diplomacy related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
If it is true that these cables were sent to WikiLeaks, there could be disastrous consequences for national security. Secret arrangements with Arab allies could be jeopardized, and information could be taken out of context to fan anti-Americanism. Allies will refuse to share intelligence and stop cooperating out of a fear that the operations will be exposed. We’re talking about long-term damage, not a short-term public relations disaster.
The Pentagon should prepare for Assange’s release of the video depicting the May 2009 airstrike in Afghanistan now. Details putting the incident in the proper context need to be released before WikiLeaks can write an anti-American narrative that takes hold in the minds of the global audience the video will reach. Julian Assange’s political offensive must be fought.